This summer, I’ve been working as commissioning editor on a podcast about coronavirus written and presented by comedian and activist Mark Thomas and published by Wellcome Collection.
Mark moved back in with his mum Margaret for lockdown, which has been an emotional rollercoaster for them both. He describes her as curmudgeonly; she says he’s the most aggravating person on the planet. In his six-part podcast, Mark has reflected on their lockdown life together while exploring the wider impact of Covid-19.
Every night, from a small bedroom in his mum’s south London flat, Mark has called a network of people working on the coronavirus frontline, be it in hospitals, GP surgeries or care homes. Humbling and often heartbreaking, these conversations with health workers across the country have revealed the highs and lows of life during a global pandemic.
Each episode has tackled a different theme: touch, protection, communication, isolation, coping, and the future. We’ve heard from Barbara, a consultant in a major trauma unit, Mike, a nurse in a private care home, Max, a haematologist, Eimear, an infection-control lead, Steve, an ancillary care worker and Amrit, a consultant psychiatrist, to name just a few of the many people who’ve spoken incredibly honestly about their experiences over the last few months.
Mark’s mum has featured in person every week, discussing everything from death wishes and depression to her mate Sylv’s unusual habit of disinfecting everything with gin. Mark, meanwhile, has talked candidly about how lockdown has affected him, confessing to ballet dancing through his darkest days, much to his mother’s dismay.
Mark and I had a small but brilliant team working with us, including sound editor Helen Atkinson and producers Nicolas Kent and Susan McNicholas. The fantastic Franklyn Rodgers was commissioned by Wellcome Collection’s photography and illustration editor, Ben Gilbert, to produce a series of portraits of Mark and his mum.
Making the podcast has been hard work but the end result is, I think, something really special. I hope you enjoy it.
Listen here: ‘Mark Thomas’s lockdown check-up’
This article was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas SG Farnetti.
Meet Gayle Price, a glassblower whose work for chemists, physicists and medics shows that craft skills and creative thinking are essential to science.
Wearing a knee-length white lab coat and wraparound shades, her long hair clipped back, Gayle Price adjusts the amount of gas and oxygen flowing into her burner. It has the look of a blowtorch, but one fixed in place and with six different outlets. The wavering orange flame that’s shooting out of it becomes fierce blue and sharp as a pin, its dull roar now a hiss.
Holding a 1.5-metre-long glass rod in one hand – hollow, with a 7 mm diameter – and a much shorter, thicker solid metal rod in the other, she starts heating the glass in the flame. As it glows and softens, she begins coiling it evenly around the metal. Her movements are quick but rhythmic. She works by eye alone.
Gayle hasn’t always worked with glass for a living, but she now can’t see herself doing anything else. She studied photography at school, then trained as a painter and decorator. After that she worked as a bouncer in Glasgow for a couple of years, but found night shifts increasingly tough.
Wondering what to do with her life one day, she saw an advert in the paper for an apprentice scientific glassblower, a scheme run jointly by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. She was intrigued, so applied and got the job, which was based in East Kilbride.
Under the direction of William McCormack – a glassblower who appreciated the importance of passing on his knowledge, nurturing five apprentices before he retired – Gayle cut her teeth making spiral taps for filtering gases, while also studying applied science on day release at college. The instruments she was making reminded her of the ones that often featured in the old horror films she loved watching with her dad.
During her training, Gayle realised that she’d always wanted to work with her hands like this, and that the promise of having her own workshop one day was compelling.
Step into Gayle’s current workshop at the University of Leicester and the joy of having a room of one’s own in which to work is easy to see. Packed with glassware of all sorts, and the tools required to manipulate it into a multitude of shapes, she’s made this practical basement space immensely personal.
There are posters and postcards all over the walls, and stickers decorating the burners and lathes. Teardrops of glass have peacock feathers trapped inside, glitter-encrusted glass flasks have wings. It’s Gayle’s space, but she’s not in the least bit territorial. She’s more than happy for me to poke around.
As Gayle works at the burner, a spiral forms in the heat, each twist and turn symmetrical. In her hands, something I think of as rigid and fixed becomes elastic, amorphous. The coil complete, she removes the entwined metal and glass from the flame and places them on a rack to cool. In a few minutes the metal will contract, allowing the glass to slip off easily.
Gayle takes another 1.5-metre length of hollow glass rod. Using a stubby knife with a tungsten carbide blade, she slices into it, leaving a deep scratch in the surface. She snaps the glass along this groove. Slowly spinning a now shorter length of glass between forefinger and thumb, she inserts one end into the burner’s 1,220°C heat.
Surrounded by flame, the end brightens, becomes liquid-looking, and eventually seals off. Despite being far from the flame, the other, still-open end of the rod glows. Instinct tells Gayle when to pull the glass out of the flame and press that orange, open tip to her lips.
I gasp, anticipating seared flesh. She blows, gently at first, then harder. A beautiful bubble grows at the rod’s opposite, softened tip. A perfect sphere, swelling out evenly under her steady breath. The end she blew into was in fact cool; glass is a good insulator and that orange glow just a fibre-optic trick of the light. She places the finished bubble alongside the spiral on the rack.
Working mainly for the university’s chemistry department, but also for physics and medicine, Gayle makes a mixture of standard and bespoke glass instruments to order, as well as fixing broken glassware from the teaching labs. Glass is an excellent material for scientific equipment: it’s durable, transparent, non-reactive, and easy to sterilise in the oven.
Gayle also collaborates with artists, recently working with a ceramicist and a jewellery designer on two projects for British Science Week. One resulted in delicate fungi-like structures made from white porcelain and clear glass, the other a large sculpture of reindeer lichen, rendered in green and clear glass.
Gayle savoured the chance to work differently, although admits it did feel odd to deliberately introduce flaws. “I usually work to very exacting parameters,” she explains. “It was different to be asked to just explore, to not create something regular. And good to be reminded how beautiful and versatile glass can be.”
Watching Gayle work, it’s clear that to be a scientific glassblower you need to be a problem-solver, and a logical but creative thinker. You need to be patient, dexterous and able to control your breath. Gayle’s scientific job involves much artistry.
Her enthusiasm is infectious, so when she invites me to have a go, I can’t resist. Putting on her spare set of wraparound shades – these have a special coating that allows you to see the glass more clearly in the flame – I ready myself in front of the burner.
Gayle sets me five tasks: cutting a glass rod, softening a sharp edge, creating a test-tube end, blowing a sphere, and making a bend. All of it is far, far harder than she makes it look, especially the blowing. Getting the glass to bubble out seems impossible at first. Gayle eggs me on – “Blow harder! Harder!” – and eventually I squeeze out a tiny, lopsided sphere. It’s pathetic, but I’m proud.
Watching – but most of all feeling – the glass transform in the flame is fascinating. I now understand more clearly what Gayle means about this everyday material’s elasticity, versatility and beauty.
I ask Gayle about the places where art and science meet, and whether she would ever consider herself to be an artist or craftsperson. “The intersections between art and science are undeniable,” she says. “Both are about discovery, exploring the unknown, making something new. As a scientific glassblower, I like the freedom to be both a craftsperson and an engineer.”
This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection.
22:45, Saturday 5 December, 2015. Power cut. Blackout.
Storm Desmond was wreaking havoc across southern Scotland, northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland that weekend, and the national news was dominated by stories of terrible floods. But in Lancaster it was loss of power that was proving most challenging for local people.
Elizabeth Shove, a professor at the University of Lancaster, was out of town at the time. Observing from a distance, she decided to pack her car full of camping equipment and head into the city on Monday. Generators were being brought in, and power was promised to have been restored, but she took the gear, just in case.
As she drove into Lancaster that Monday evening she noticed the traffic lights weren’t working. Almost 48 hours after the city first plunged into darkness, the power was off again.
Elizabeth directs the Demand Centre, and her research is all about energy in everyday life. There’s nothing quite like a blackout for illustrating just how reliant on electricity we have become. “We just don’t know, and would never know, really, how far that dependence has gone,” says Elizabeth, “until the blackout, which is illuminating.”
And actually a power cut is much more than a blackout. Sure, the lights go out, but a lot of other things stop working too, as Elizabeth explains:
Phones didn’t work. Electronic door-locking systems defaulted to open, letting anyone in. Fire alarms that had only limited battery backup failed after a while. Lots of building energy management systems didn’t work. Cash machines didn’t function, nor did credit card payment systems, or traffic lights, or petrol pumps.
In a way it didn’t matter that people could no longer charge their computers or phones, because the power cut also meant, for many, there was no Internet or mobile phone signal. Keeping in touch was tough, and listening to the news impossible if you didn’t own a battery-powered analogue radio. Many people simply didn’t know what was going on. Lancaster is near Heysham Nuclear Power Station, and vague rumours about a problem with the power plant led some to fear the worst.
It was in fact a flood at an electricity substation that saw the city’s power cut that Saturday night in December. Generators were brought in on the Monday, but they were quickly overloaded. Things didn’t get back to normal until Friday, when the city was fully reconnected to the mains. As the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport says in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Living without Electricity’ report, “life for more than 100,000 people in Lancaster reverted to a pre-electronics era”.
The power cut affected households, businesses, banks, hospitals, schools, and transport, even other utilities like gas, water and sewage. Did you know your gas central heating needs electricity to work, or that some modern taps and toilets require a power supply to run or flush?
“A blackout reveals to us how dependent we are on the electrical system,” says historian David Nye. “The history of blackouts is also the history of the consumption of electricity, and the history of our dependence and how it grows.”
Nobody knew how long the Lancaster power cut was going to last. For Elizabeth it revealed the temporality of energy use. If the power supply isn’t always on, you find out which power dependent things are flexible, and which ones are not. On a domestic level, it might be working out what you can delay doing – the laundry, say – and what you can’t – mealtimes, for example. “Suddenly things that haven’t been visible before come into view,” says Elizabeth. “There were lots of surprises.”
One surprise happened at the Lancaster Royal Infirmary. Like most district general hospitals it had standby diesel generators, which meant it was one of the only places in the city with light, functioning plug sockets and hot food. As such it was a beacon in the dark, and quickly overwhelmed by power-hungry people.
According to the ‘Living without Electricity’ report:
The hospital was seen by many as a community centre. People with nowhere else to go wandered in off the street. The canteen served a record number of meals. A group of students arrived with a six-way extension lead and their mobile phone/tablet battery chargers which they connected to the first free 13A socket they could find. As a community centre, it was serving a valuable function – increasingly important as other facilities were closed – but well removed from its core business.
It’s perhaps tempting to gloss over what happened in Lancaster with talk of a community rallying round, of a ‘Blitz spirit’. Elizabeth cautions against this, warning it’s a way of disguising more serious problems. “Valuing community spirit is not the same as being better prepared for disruption,” she says. “The power cut showed that our depth of resilience is really very shallow. People didn’t have cash, students didn’t have food. The hospital was exploited for its power, they weren’t expecting it, or prepared for it.”
So what else did Elizabeth learn during that week without power?
The difference between mains power, and generated power; that the light being on isn’t as important as the Internet being on; that people with wood burning stoves and landlines were in an infinitely better position than those without. We learned that we’re completely in the grip of the grid, but also that power cuts aren’t uniform, that the geography and extent of the situation shifts all the time. And that a mobile phone can work as a radio, even without a signal!
What did it teach us about future energy use, not least in the context of climate change and the global movement towards renewable power? “If the future really involves a lot more renewable power, then the power supply will be more intermittent,” according to Elizabeth. She continues:
It doesn’t necessarily mean full blackouts, but it probably will – and actually hopefully will – involve a much more calibrated ebb and flow of demand. So, not everything is available to be on absolutely all the time. Closer connection with the seasons is really very likely to happen. The practices that depend on electricity will have to be rethought in terms of their timing.
Perhaps it’s also worth casting our eyes back to blackouts of the past. David Nye explains that, “The very beginning of the use of this term was in the 1930s, when people were intentionally blacking out cities or airports or military bases as a military tactic – the intentional control of light and the reduction in the use of electricity.”
There are self-imposed blackouts, of a sort, today too. This year saw the 10th Earth Hour where people across the world chose to turn the lights out for an hour, to “shine a light on the need for climate action”. David calls this a “greenout” rather than a blackout. “The choices we face now with electricity are fundamental,” he says. “Will we continue on the high energy binge of the 20th century? Are we going to treat the electrical grid’s technological power and momentum as something that’s inevitable? Or will we consume, maybe, a little less?”
This article was inspired by, and quotes from, ‘Electricity – where now?’, an audio installation produced by Simon Hollis for Electricity: The spark of life.
The image featured at the top of this article is taken from a public information poster now stored in The National Archives. It was designed by Tom Gentleman some time between 1939 and 1946.
This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas Farnetti.
Jazmine Miles-Long kneels down to open up the small freezer that sits on her studio floor. Each drawer is filled with clear zip-locked bags, each bag is numbered, and each one has a body in it.
She selects a bag containing a juvenile greenfinch, takes out the skin, and begins washing it in a basin of warm soapy water. A few basins of fresh water later, she places the bird on a clean towel. It’s now sodden, and rather sad with it. Jazmine bends low over her work bench, her blue-gloved hands delicately working through wet feathers with a small brush and some long tweezers. She explains that, although the greenfinch looks like it has feathers sprouting all over its body, they actually grow from specific feather tracts. Large areas of the skin are in fact feather free. It’s this kind of detail that doing taxidermy brings to light.
Jazmine handles the greenfinch skin with the methodical patience of a craftsperson, the cool eye of a surgeon, the enquiring mind of a zoologist, and the reverence of an animal lover. As she works, I ask why contemporary taxidermists take such exception to the word ‘stuffed’? “Because it suggests there’s no process,” she replies.
Process is everything. It’s invasive – if you end up dead on Jazmine’s desk she will quite literally turn you inside out. And it’s intimate – she’ll spend hours poring over your every intricate detail, determined to make you look your best. “People don’t realise how delicate and slow you have to be,” she explains.
Every skin Jazmine works on teaches her more about how strong or light her hands can be. She describes her touch as “knowing”. The finch’s skin is strong when wet, but still delicate, “almost like wet cigarette paper, it’s so thin”. When it dries it will become very fragile. Jazmine admits she’s become desensitised to the blood and guts that are an inevitable part of her work, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fascinated by what goes on under the skin. “Wild animals are really lean, with fat in all the right places”, she says, clearly impressed by their efficiency.
The cleaning complete, Jazmine pulls out a hairdryer and begins blow drying the bird. It’s an odd moment: the jets of hot air temporarily animate the skin, bringing it to a strange kind of life. The feathers fluff up and ripple. As well as volume, they start to regain their olive brown-greens, their banana-bright yellows, their soft-soft greys. She lays the dry finch on a towel so I can take a closer look, tummy down, wings spread. It’s the closest I’ve ever been, or probably ever will be, to a greenfinch. The bird’s beak, legs and claws are a delicate shell pink, and its characteristic boxy profile somehow seems more distinct now it’s dry, despite being without flesh. It’s tiny, and very beautiful.
Her demonstration done, Jazmine places the finch in a fresh zip-lock bag, numbers it, then files it away in the freezer. She’s carved a balsa wood body for the bird, and explains how if she was working on a mammal the process of preparing the skin would be different. Rather than washing and cleaning, she would pickle and tan. The insides would be moulded from wood wool, rather than carved from balsa.
But, one of the very first steps, whether working on bird or beast, is always to make a detailed plan. Jazmine does this by drawing around and measuring the animal, positioning it on a sheet of paper how she wants it to look when it’s mounted. The plans she has pinned to her studio walls are stained with blood. She says that making a piece of taxidermy is, for her, about copying the individual in front of her. Every creature is different, and each teaches her new things.
Jazmine studied sculpture, and volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton after university. She fell into taxidermy there, loving it for its variety, and its craft. “It requires so many different skills, and types of making”, she explains. “You have to love animals. It’s a privilege to know more about them. I’ve learned so much from my making, seeing first-hand how a woodpecker’s tongue curls around the back of its head, between the skull and the skin, and how a rabbit’s whiskers grow right into its brain.”
It’s an unusual job, and people are generally fascinated when Jazmine tells them what she does for a living. The questions she’s most often asked are: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever worked on? (A cheetah, which died in captivity of cancer, in case you’re wondering. It was the most challenging thing she’s ever worked on, too); Are the eyes real? (No, never); Does the animal have to die in the pose it’s mounted in? (No, of course not). I ask about the smelliest thing she’s worked on, and she says a gannet. Seabirds stink because their stomachs are full of rotting fish.
Jazmine describes herself as an ‘ethical taxidermist’, which is also a conversation starter, because what does that mean? “Ethical is an annoying word”, she says, “but it’s the only way I can communicate about what I’m doing, because it makes people ask questions.” She only works with creatures that have died of natural causes, or by accident, never anything that has been purposely killed. How the finished work is presented, and where it ends up, is important, too. “I say no to a lot of things”, she says, “I’ll only do things that feel respectful. I don’t do trophy heads of any kind.”
Jazmine does do commissions, and her work for the artist Abbas Akhavan features in Making Nature: How we see animals at Wellcome Collection. The final fox, badger and owl that are on display represent Akhavan’s vision, rather than Jazmine’s, and he was keen to provoke. There are no cases, and no interpretation telling you what you’re looking at, or what you should think. The animals are intended to look what they are: dead. The fact they’ve been placed on the gallery floor has been controversial for some, and proved that taxidermy has the potential to produce an emotional response.
Does Jazmine like the word ‘taxidermy’, which is derived from two Greek words, ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’, and ‘derma’ meaning skin? Together they mean ‘the arrangement of skin’. “I love that word”, she says, while also admitting it’s complicated. “It’s broad, and can include so many things. Through my work I try to make the word have a better meaning.”
Although she accepts that dead animals make some people feel weird, and some will always insist on calling what she does ‘macabre’, Jazmine argues that, in most instances, it must surely be better to interact with a mounted animal that has died naturally, or by accident, than to see a wild animal alive but shut in a cage. Getting up close to an animal helps create a bond, and can open us up to new ideas and experiences.
Jazmine recently mounted a swift for the Booth Museum. In life the swift will likely have arrived in the UK in spring, staying until late July or early August. It will then have migrated through France and Spain to spend its winter in Africa, following the rains, and the insects they bring. In its afterlife the swift and its story are being used to teach kids about refugees and dual identity, as well as bird migration. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger talks about the “universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world.” Jazmine’s swift seems an excellent example of that.
Taxidermy transforms once living things into something very different. The “biological death of the living beast is the birth of the specimen”, as Samuel Alberti says in The Afterlives of Animals. There is of course a difference between how we relate to an animal in its new form, and how we would have done when it was alive. Does arranging nature in this way bring us closer to it, in more than just a physical sense? And could ignoring the person in every piece of taxidermy actually be driving us further apart?
Jazmine points out that when we look at a piece of taxidermy we often just see the animal, rather than acknowledging what it is now, and the relationship between it and its maker. We might wonder what the animal’s life was like, and how it died, but we often ignore the fact so much work and care has gone into creating what it has become after death.
“The craft has developed over such a long time, but it doesn’t have the prestige that others have because we are working with dead animals, and also because of where the work ends up, often presented anonymously with no detail about the maker”, says Jazmine. “A piece of taxidermy is a craft object that’s been made by a person, it’s not just an animal. It’s a partnership with a maker. It’s an animal and an object.”